Published: June 1, 2013 By

Maasai pastoralists have adopted coping mechanisms for drought that indicate rising levels of social stratification and might help social scientists understand how these people would adapt to changing climate in Africa. Photo by Mara J. Goldman.

Maasai pastoralists have adopted coping mechanisms for drought that indicate rising levels of social stratification and might help social scientists understand how these people would adapt to changing climate in Africa. Photo by Mara J. Goldman.

The devastating drought of 2009 in northern Tanzania generated new coping strategies by Maasai people, suggesting that Maasai with more money and social connections are better able than their poorer, less-connected neighbors to endure extreme events such as drought and, potentially, climate change, a team of University of Colorado Boulder researchers has found.

While the findings have implications for climate-change adaptation, they also highlight the institutional barriers that pastoral cultures such as the Maasai now face—especially the increased fragmentation of landscapes.

And that fragmented landscape could foster greater inequality that could threaten pastoralism, which is the most sustainable lifestyle in the semi arid areas in East Africa, the researchers add.

It’s widely predicted that climate change will most acutely affect poorer countries, and the poorest people in those poor countries will bear the greatest burden, said Mara J. Goldman, the study’s first author.

“And I think our research shows that.”

She added: “We can’t really study how people are going to adapt to climate change, but we can say, ‘Well, how are people reacting, and are there new adaptations that are taking shape to extreme events that are happening?’”

Goldman and co-author Fernando Riosmena are assistant professors of geography and faculty research associates at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science. Their study was published this spring in the journal Global Environmental Change.

Goldman researches human-environment relations with the Tanzanian and Kenyan Maasai, one of the most recognizable ethnic groups in Africa, known for its distinctive, colorful dress and social customs. Goldman was in Tanzania in 2009, during the drought, which wreaked havoc on pastures and on Maasai cattle.

Drought is not uncommon in East Africa. But the 2009 drought was particularly detrimental. In the Longido area of Tanzania, northwest of Kilamanjaro National Park, nearly 90 percent of cattle perished. In the southwest part of Monduli District area to the south, which had more rain early in the season, about 10 percent of cattle perished.

In both regions, those who had the financial means and social connections to adopt new coping strategies emerged from the drought most successfully. These new strategies are necessary in part because of the increased fragmentation of the land—much of which has become inaccessible as private farms, conservation areas or national parks.

Goldman saw these coping strategies while doing field work in a village in Monduli Distrct where she has worked since 2004.

“It’s a pretty small village, and I know everybody,” Goldman said. In 2009, “I kept seeing people I didn’t know, and I kept asking them, ‘Where are you from?’”

The number of people who were on the move from Longido seeking better pastures was “just startling,” Goldman said. While Maasai are pastoralists, they do not usually travel such long distances in such large numbers in a single season.

After interviewing several Maasai, she determined they were responding to the drought by doing things they’d never done before “and things that I had never heard before.”

She decided to do a more rigorous survey at the end of the drought, conducting structured interviews of 148 people: 51 in Monduli and 97 in Longido.

“While some households are positively adapting to the constraints of their new environment, this has led and could further lead to increases in stratification within communities,” the authors write. Further, the social-ecological system has been compromised by increased privatization and fragmentation of land.

The ability to purchase pasture depends on having cash and the knowledge that this was a strategy Maasai could employ. That knowledge was not a given, “because it was brand-new for most people.”

In the survey, Goldman asked about adaptive strategies the Maasai (who often employ reciprocal assistance) had never tried before. Those new strategies included paying for access to pasture, paying for grass to be transported to the cows, buying supplemental feed for whole herds.

Climate change is likely to be felt severely in Africa, Goldman said, adding that it’s likely to get wetter in some places, drier in others, generally hotter, and feature more extreme events such as drought.

“This means that understanding how people are reacting to a bad drought right now has pretty strong implications for what they may or may not be able to do in the future,” she said.

“I think what our data show is quite troubling: The current landscape-and-institutions nexis is really unsupportive of pastoralism and is making the ability to cope with changes and with extreme events much more difficult.”

“Our findings suggest that certain individuals are going to be able to cope better than others, so we have potentially an increase in the division within society, between the wealthy and the poor.”

Many of the Maasai’s old coping strategies just don’t work anymore because of factors including land fragmentation and increased privatization of management of land and herds, Goldman said. In addition to money, new knowledge, new skills, new kinds of social connections are needed, Goldman said.

“So its not just the same old divisions of the wealthy and the poor, but divisions between people who have these new connections, knowledge and money and those who don’t.”

She noted that pastoralists have always coped with drought, and adapted to their environment; the study shows on the positive side that Maasai are coming up with new coping techniques where their old ones don’t work so well.

“The coping mechanisms that people are utilizing, these newer ones in particular, are not contributing to the ability of the system as a whole to adapt, and they may be contributing to the very processes which will reduce the ability of the larger system to adapt,” Goldman said.

That raises the question of whether preserving pastoral traditions is important. Goldman said it is.

“There’s been a lot of research that has shown that in this part of the world, as in other parts of the world that are characterized as semi-arid ecosystems, the most productive form of land use is pastoralism combined with something like wildlife conservation,” Goldman said.

“Intensive farming, intensive ranching is not sustainable,” she added. “And so if we’ve got large swaths of land that look like this—and they’re most likely to increase to some extent with climate change—then the best way to actually utilize those lands in a sustainable manner would be to maintain pastoralism.”

And if pastoralism is an important part of the way people define themselves—as it is with Maasai—“Who is to decide that it’s not one that should stick around anymore?”

Further, she noted, climate change does not happen in isolation:

“Climate happens in places where there are institutions in place or not in place to help people manage extreme events and where the landscape is either being managed sustainably or not. And I think understanding the way these things are linked is really important.”